Syd Bolton is “the geek that geeks look up to.”
At least that’s how an old high school acquaintance of the Brantford, Ont. native described him when they bumped into each other recently. The well-intentioned description was issued with good reason; after all, when you bring together a lifelong collection of about 250 computers spanning the last three decades of PC history and house them in your very own, not-for-profit computer museum, the title seems apt.
“I had three computers at age 12: a Commodore 64, a Vic20 and an Apple II,” says Bolton, 35. “At 16, I had managed to amass 16 different computers and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to have a computer for every year I am old.'”
That growth rate held true until his early twenties when, “I went off-kilter and suddenly had 40 computers.” A few years later, the count was over 100. And as the tagline at sydbolton.com proclaims, he should be 250 years old by now.
“People were chucking these machines and it upset me,” says Bolton, who works as a professional software writer. “I thought that somebody had to start taking responsibility for them and making sure people didn’t forget about them.”
After storing his burgeoning collection in places as diverse as his mother’s furnace room and spare offices at his various businesses, Bolton finally found the home he’d been dreaming of for all those Ataris, Amigas and ColecoVisions: a former church and bus shed at the back of a Brantford house he purchased in 2005. There were no electricity or water lines running into the building, let alone the 50 or so high-speed Internet connections that snake through the premises today.
“It was kind of ugly-looking, but I knew it would be perfect for the museum,” says Bolton.
With the help of a construction-minded friend, Bolton gradually transformed the building from a neglected eyesore into a nerd’s nirvana.
The Personal Computer Museum was born.
If you remember playing games or doing work on a computer back in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, the chances are pretty good that Bolton has a model of it — in good working order. There’s the toolbox-like Osborne 1, released in 1981; 1983’s Sinclair ZX81; and more popular consoles, such as the ColecoVision and various members of the Atari family.
“The museum is overwhelming, with the scope of the collection,” says museum visitor Derek Dresser, a friend of Bolton’s who has paid three visits. “You get a great sense of nostalgia. It reminds me of how much choice we had back then. You had Atari, Apple, Commodore and Intellivision, each with their own unique pros and cons.”
Dresser was also impressed with how well Bolton has displayed his wares.
“It’s a very clean place and well-laid-out. Even though it’s a not-for-profit, it’s very professional. You get the sense that [Bolton] is somebody who has made this out of love, a real passion. You’ve got to really like [computers] to do it and it comes through.”
Though the collection is vast, a few models stand out for Bolton. Among them is the IMSAI 8080, produced in 1976 and similar to the Altair, the first computer Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote the BASIC language for.
“They were closely related and look the same,” Bolton says. “There’s no keyboard or mouse, or even screen for that matter. It’s just flip switches.”
The computer is so far removed from what we use today that some visitors are left scratching their heads upon seeing it. “They come up and say, ‘What is that thing?’ They can ‘t believe it’s a computer.”
Bolton also has a soft spot for one of the big stars of the ’80s, the Commodore Amiga.
“It’s probably nearest and dearest to my heart because I made my living off writing Amiga software for a number of years, and I developed a lot of lifelong friendships through it.”
The not-for-profit museum is open one day per month and operated by Bolton and a team of 11 volunteers. Admission is free but donations are appreciated. About 40 to 50 people come out each time, he says, with visitors coming from all over Ontario. Part of the collection’s appeal is its novelty factor, according to Beth Gurney, information coordinator for Tourism Brantford.
“Most communities have a pioneer house or public gardens, but we are fairly unique in having this facility. And I think it has given us a real niche that we didn’t have before.”
Gurney points out that the museum is a “natural link” with another tech-related Brantford landmark — the Bell Homestead, a recreation of the farmhouse where Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1874.
“Brantford is known as the Telephone City because we have the Bell Homestead, and that’s always been a draw for us. I think the PC Museum is a great evolution of that.”
Brant County MPP Dave Levac believes Bolton’s shrine represents a new style of tourist attraction that could alter the way we view museums.
“One of the problems (with tourism) is trying to create the new tourism spots. You can take the old ones…but what’s the next wave? You’ve got World War One and World War Two museums, you’ve got county museums, but this one is a brand new idea. When you walk in there your eyes light up,” says Levac.
A passion for PCs
Regardless of the museum’s future impact, those who know Bolton say his modern machine Mecca was borne from a love of PCs and a desire to help others appreciate them.
“Syd has been the computing go-to guy from the time he was in his early teens. If you had a problem you went to Syd with it,” says Tina Draycott, a friend of Bolton’s since the time when Commodores were considered cutting-edge. “To this day, somebody will have a programming issue and Syd’s the crazy guy who will actually answer his phone at 12:30 at night.”
Bolton’s giving spirit also extends to his position as technical chair and secretary of Brant FreeNet, one of the few remaining Canadian ISPs that offers Internet access at no cost to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. He also chairs a foundation begun by his aunt and uncle in 1984 after they won a 6-49 jackpot of $14 million. They set aside one million of that, the interest of which is distributed annually to Brantford-area charities.
The lottery win also helped Bolton get his computer collection growing. “It was a big deal to have one computer back then, and the reason I could have three was due to the fact that my aunt and uncle were rich.”
Bolton says he has put about $100,000 of his own money into the museum, and he doesn’t plan on putting in much more. He is working to get a charitable status applied to it, which would enable others to contribute grant money. “I think I’m done (contributing). I don’t regret it in any way, but at some point I have to say, ‘This is as far as I’m going to go.’”
There is no shortage of future plans for the museum swirling in Bolton’s mind, however. He eventually wants to create themed rooms that correspond to the different decades in which the machines were released.
“There will be a ’70s living room with an Atari 2600, and visitors will sit on an orange couch and play Combat and Pac-man. In the ’80s room there will be a Nintendo system, and the ’90s would be the decade of the PlayStation.”
Bolton also plans to eventually incorporate his collection of more than 5,000 video games, still residing in his house, into the museum. Once that project is complete, he hopes to devote more time to his creation.
“That’ll be my retirement job — to be the curator of this thing full-time.”
For more on the Personal Computer Museum, see www.pcmuseum.ca.